SPOKANE, Wash. (AP)—Tony Bennett wasn’t surprised that his No. 9 Cougars had a rough time with unheralded Montana on Friday night.
“I had a feeling it would be a real good test,” Bennett said.
It was for more than 30 minutes, before Washington State (4-0) pulled away for a 66-55 win in the Cougar Hispanic College Fund Challenge.
Bennett had seen the Grizzlies rebound from a poor start in a loss to Gonzaga, had seen them dismantle Colorado State, and knew they were a veteran team with NCAA tournament experience.
Taylor Rochestie had 17 points and six assists. Derrick Low added 14 points, Aron Baynes had 14 points and nine rebounds, and Kyle Weaver had 12 points for the Cougars.
Cameron Rundles scored 13 points to lead Montana (3-2), which stayed close much of the game by winning the rebound battle 28-27 and making eight of 18 3-pointers. Andrew Strait added 10 points, all in the first half.
Washington State, enjoying the highest ranking in team history, is now 11-0 in November under Bennett, who is in his second season.
The Cougars had only seven turnovers in the game, only two in the second half. They shot 49 percent while holding Montana to 39 percent.
Most damaging, to Montana coach Wayne Tinkle, was Washington State making 12 of 15 free throws in the second half, while his team made its only two opportunities.
“For us to be successful, we’ve got to get inside,” Tinkle said.
Washington State led just 28-26 at halftime, and built a 35-28 lead early in the second. But 3-pointers by Montana’s Rundles and Kyle Sharp, sandwiched around a 3-point play by WSU’s Weaver, brought Montana to within 38-34.
Weaver and Rochestie hit consecutive layups to rebuild a 42-34 WSU lead.
Montana’s Brian Qvale completed a three-point play to cut WSU’s lead to 44-39, but it was the Grizzlies’ last real threat. Rochestie replied with a 3-pointer and Baynes hit a pair of free throws for a 49-39 WSU lead.
An 8-0 run capped by consecutive layups by Low gave Washington State its biggest lead at 57-42.
There is a myth that the Spokane Arena is tough on shooters, but Low dismissed that.
“A rim is a rim,” he said.
Rochestie didn’t have any trouble, making seven of his 10 shots. But sharpshooter Daven Harmeling was just 1-of-7, and the Cougars make only 3-of-12 3-point attempts.
“We have had trouble shooting at this arena,” Low allowed, upon reflection.
Bennett was pleased that so many players divided up the scoring.
“Balance is good,” he said.
In the first half, both teams opened at a blistering pace, with Montana holding a 14-13 lead. The Cougars scored seven straight points to go up 20-14.
Montana cut into the lead as Rundles scored six consecutive points for the Grizzlies—on a 3-pointer and all three free throws when he was fouled shooting a 3-pointer. Strait’s basket tied the score at 26 in the closing seconds, before Rochestie’s layup gave Washington State a 28-26 halftime lead.
Bennett blamed poor defense by his team for letting the Grizzlies hang so close. Montana seemed to tire in the second, Bennett said.
“We came out with a lot of momentum in the first half,” said Strait. “We were a lot more physical in the first half.”
Low missed a free throw in the second half to end his consecutive streak at 24, third longest in team history.
Tinkle noted that his team has played No. 9 WSU and No. 14 Gonzaga on trips to Spokane this year.
“It’s tough to find your groove with teams ranked in the Top 15,” Tinkle said. “I’m proud of our guys for hanging in there.”